“If you’re not thinking about that worst-case scenario as a parent, you’re considered evil,” says Lenore Skenazy. “We have a society that has dedicated itself to making sure that children won’t have to deal with anything scary or bad.”
Neurotic parenting is preventing children from developing emotionally and becoming independent, says Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and president of the Let Grow nonprofit.
Once dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” after letting her 9-year-old son take the New York subway alone, she’s featured in the new documentary “Chasing Childhood.”
Jan Jekielek: Lenore Skenazy, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Lenore Skenazy: Thank you, Yan.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I am extremely happy to be speaking with you today. A topic that is very different from our usual fare here on America Thought Leaders.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes, not China
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Free range parenting, has it become a dictionary word now?
Mrs. Skenazy: It is in the dictionary, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You have a statistic, okay and I have to start us off here because I thought that was fascinating. You were talking in the film “Chasing Childhood,” which is wonderful, I just watched it. You said something like crime has been going down, and statistically for someone’s child to be abducted, it would take something like 750,000 years.
Mrs. Skenazy: You’re stepping on the punchline here, man. You have to ask somebody: “Hey, Jan. How long do you think it would take, if you left your kid outside, how long do you think it would take before they’d be abducted by a stranger?” And then when I ask this to audiences, you know, people raise their hand and they say, “I don’t know, 24 hours.” And some people say 20 minutes; some people think two minutes.
And then once in a while, somebody will say, “10 years.” And I’ll say, “Well, you’re close, except that it actually is [more].” Statistically if you wanted your kid to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to keep them out there for it to be likely to happen? And the answer is, as you were saying, 750,000 years.
And you know, after the first 100,000 or so, he’s not really a kid anymore. I’m not even sure if their bones are left there, but anyways, it’s a very long time. And I love my statistic because it tries to put into perspective just how rare this crime is that sort of dominates our brains.
But I’ve found in years and years of talking about it, not 750,000 but a long time, it doesn’t really change things. Unfortunately you can be as well-versed as you like in the numbers and reality, and it change people’s fears, alas.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. Some years ago—and I vaguely remember this happening—you wrote a column basically: why I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone. You got in big trouble.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But now, I guess the big question is why did you get in big trouble?
Mrs. Skenazy: Oh, that’s interesting, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And how has that changed? That’s the topic of our episode today.
Mrs. Skenazy: The reason I got in trouble is because I said it out loud. Two days after I wrote the column, which was in the New York Sun, I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. You know, it’s not a political thing here. It was interesting to everyone, defending myself.
AI got the nickname America’s worst mom, which is always fun to show somebody if you’re sitting next to them on the bus. I’m like, Google “America’s worst mom.” They do it, and they think I’m going to kill them.
But the reason I got into trouble is because when I was on these shows I said, “Listen, I didn’t do it because I don’t care about my kid living or dying. I did it because I trust him. I trust the city. I trust strangers.” And I didn’t go to the very darkest place because I was constantly asked, like to this day asked: “But what if he had never come home?” That’s what they always ask.
But he did. Why are we talking about that? It’s like if you’re not thinking about that worst case scenario as a parent, you’re considered evil, you’re considered in denial at best and absolutely uncaring and heartless at worst, because somehow the knee-jerk thing we’re supposed to do these days is imagine our kids dead, and it’s all our fault.
I know I’m putting it pretty boldly, and I haven’t drawn you there slowly with a lot of arguments and discussion, and we’ll get there, but really I was going to write a book called “Stop Imagining Your Kids Dead”, because that’s really become an obsession of American parents, and I’d say the media.
Mr. Jekielek: In the film, I think it’s Dr. Peter Gray that talks about how we’re kind of living in a social experiment because for all of human history, essentially, children had considerable freedom aside from child slavery and some of these horrible scenarios, but for the majority of history. But today, and in one or two generations—I think you say one, I’m counting two—something really changed dramatically.
Mrs. Skenazy: Exactly what you’re saying. Peter Gray who’s one of the co-founders with me of Let Grow, which is the nonprofit I run that’s trying to bring independence back to childhood. He’s an evolutionary psychologist, who teaches at Boston College.
He has studied play throughout history, and its role in kids’ lives. It’s how the kids learn to make something happen. It’s how they learn to get along. It’s how they learn to compromise. It’s how they learn to hold themselves together so that they don’t have to go home a crying mess and can keep playing whatever game they’re playing.
And we have replaced that with something that might look like play, but it’s really adult-run, and that’s what’s so different. I mean, if you’re going to lacrosse or soccer or Kumon or chess, whatever it is, there’s an adult showing: this is what you’re going to do now. And when you’re done, I’ll evaluate it. We can all have fun, and we can have snacks at the end.
But there’s no chance for the kids to figure out all the messiness of how to get along, and to take that out of kids’ lives, which is an instinct that was put in there, that’s it’s as deeply embedded and as important to the human species as the drive to procreate, right?
You want to keep the species going, and one way mother nature made that happen is by putting this drive to play into kids so that they will learn about their environment and figure out how to deal with things.
One of the examples that another play expert, a guy named Stuart Brown, talks about is that all animals play. Like gazelle, when they’re very little start doing what looks like tag. One is running and the other is chasing, and then they turn around and the other one’s chasing them. And that’s stupid, right? There’s the gazelle out in the field where a lion can get them, and they’re wasting all their energy. They’re going to have to eat way more gazelle chow. Why is there that instinct to do that when they could just be sitting quietly next to their moms and reading a wonderful book?
The reason that mother nature made them do that is because they need that even more. They need that time playing and interacting with the other animals and the environment for them to survive as a species. That’s the same with us, and we’re not doing it. We are giving kids a lot of chance to be good students, whether it’s a baseball or in the classroom, but we’re not giving them a chance to come up with anything on their own and make it happen.
Mr. Jekielek: Through the fairly short history of American Thought Leaders, this show, I’ve interviewed a lot of people on a lot of topics, but one topic which I haven’t really talked to anyone about until today is, the only way to call it is, a “safety-est culture” that is developed. And I think these things are deeply connected. It’s not just for kids that there is this safety-ism for lack of a better term. It’s just something that’s been on my mind, and I think it feeds into a lot of concerning social phenomena that I’m seeing.
Mrs. Skenazy: Let’s just talk about what I was reading today. There was a New York Times article in a column called Modern Love. This one woman was writing about how her husband became obsessed with danger, every danger that could possibly face their child. When the baby was four months old, there was a little spot on the kid’s lips, the dad went and Googled it and he was convinced that this was cancer, and the child was going to die.
When they were growing their blueberries in the backyard, he was convinced that the ground is leached with chemicals, and they can’t eat those blueberries or he’ll die. And he put some wood in their wood-burning oven—which I think is scarier than anything the kid’s going to touch the wood-burning oven—but anyways, he put the wood in there ,and he realized it was old scrap wood, and maybe it had arsenic in it, and he was convinced the child was going to die.
They finally went to a shrink who helped him realize that this is obsessive compulsive disorder. You’re convinced that everything leads to death, and that it’s all your fault.
I was thinking he’s not the only one. Because you’re in a society that is telling you almost every day that almost everything that your child is doing could be a disaster unless you are hypervigilant.
I decided, let me look up, what’s the latest thing that CPSC, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning parents about? Last month, the most recent thing that I thought was interesting that they were warning parents about was little socks for your child with a pompom on the ankle. Why was this dangerous?
Mr. Jekielek: They can swallow it; it gets lodged in their throat?
Mrs. Skenazy: What, the whole sock or?
Mr. Jekielek: The pom-pom.
Mrs. Skenazy: The pom-pom, yes. There’s a job waiting for you in DC, there you go. Exactly that. And I think, by the time you have an entire government agency warning you that pom-poms are deadly, there’s something amiss, right?
I went a little back further on the CPSC site, and last month, the month before it had warned about some kids’ sandals, because one of the little toggles could fall off. And once again, that posed a choking hazard.
Really it’s almost a parlor game except the people are really being driven crazy. Come up with a reason that almost anything is a danger. The flag could fall over; this could explode. You could have eaten a non-organic grape this morning, and who knows what’s happening to your system now. It’s an OCD culture.
What is OCD? Obsessive compulsive, you feel like if you do certain things and you’re obsessed with doing them, you can make things safe. You have Parents Magazine, which every month comes up with something new for us to worry about. I was looking at that again too. They had the top 10 safety dangers in your home, top 10 home health hazards I think they did, because what is alliteration if not a selling point. And what was number one?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I think the hot wood burning stove definitely would be at the top of the list because you can’t usually tell. I mean, I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of that.
Mrs. Skenazy: Oh, and here you are today.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes
Mrs. Skenazy: Incredible. Right, they must have not burned arsenic
Mr. Jekielek: But what was it?
Mrs. Skenazy: The top one was the laundry hamper of course. Because?
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a cage?
Mrs. Skenazy: Sort of, that’s something I would worry about. No, in a way it is. They were talking about a particular kind of laundry hamper, as if everybody has this particular hamper, which is a cylinder, and there’s a piece of wire that goes around it that holds it up. I don’t know if you’ve seen these.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Mrs. Skenazy: Anyways, the point was, what if your child is playing with the laundry hamper and somehow the wire comes loose from the hamper and your child is right there where the wire comes out and it slices their eyes? That was literally the worry.
That to me was really interesting, not only because they actually found some doctor who had once treated somebody for having their eyes sliced open from a hamper, but there was no sense of: isn’t this weird, we’re worrying parents about almost the least likely thing that could happen to their child? And we’re telling them, you better be vigilant about this now too.
Already you’re worried about the leaching of the chemicals, and you’re worried about in the bed, so a crib can’t have any blankets or toys or bumpers or pillow or anything anymore, less that somehow cover the kid and hurt their breathing. And you can’t have drop side crib because somehow those were more dangerous, even though 3 million used to be sold.
I don’t want to get into this Consumer Product Safety Commission thing completely.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mrs. Skenazy: But the point is that there is no one saying: hang on a second, that’s a little crazy, or that’s a little much, or maybe we don’t have to worry about laundry hampers. Instead, you are rewarded for coming into—I was just reading Parents Magazine. Look what’s on the cover, top 10 health hazards, and the laundry hamper is there.
So whatever your original question was, safety-ism has taken over, and ironically there don’t seem to be any brakes that are working when it comes to that.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, what this reminds me of is from years ago. I remember hearing about this is maybe the archetypal story, the McDonald’s coffee.
Mrs. Skenazy: The hot coffee, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s dangerous because it’s hot, right? It’s the obvious thing, but someone sued, someone won, and that created these kinds of warnings, which are obvious, but maybe not obvious to everybody. Is that what creates this? How did we get here? That’s the question.
Mrs. Skenazy: There’s a lot of ways we got there, but in terms of what you’re talking about there is sort of fear of litigation. If anybody can sue about anything—and I actually don’t know the whole story about McDonald’s. I’ve heard it from both sides, and sometimes it sounds like, well, that’s a completely sane lawsuit and sometimes it sounds the opposite.
But when you are worried that there are also no brakes on what you can sue for—I mean, some guy in D.C. sued the dry cleaner for 200 and something million dollars, because he’d ruined his pants.
You worry that not only is sanity lacking in the magazines for parents, but sanity is lacking in the court system, and there’s nobody with the authority to say: excuse me, this is crazy. It was a pair of pants. Go out and buy a new pair. Give them $50, goodbye.
Then you have to almost think like a crazy person, what could somebody be crazy enough to sue me about? And you play Jiu-Jitsu. It’s sort of like doctors have to order all sorts of extra tests that they don’t really think that a client needs, a patient needs, but what if there is something that they missed? It’s a one in a thousand chance, but we’ll do the test anyway. So there’s a lot of defensiveness in terms of fearing outlandish litigation.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re seeing this manifest through this whole COVID pandemic too. You want to reduce the risk to zero, which frankly, in my understanding is not remotely possible.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes, COVID is something that just confuses me entirely. Almost worse than the McDonald’s coffee thing, I can see both sides.
But in terms of the idea of reducing risk to zero, I think that’s exactly the issue here. It is driving parents crazy the idea that they can control for everything, and we can’t.
My favorite thinker about this is a professor of religion named Alan Lovitz. He’s at James Madison University. What he said struck me as really interesting, and we can talk about it for a second, which is that when you have a more religious society or when we were a more religious society, religion covered more of our lives: what you could do, eat, where, say, who you’d marry, where you’d live, all that stuff.
That has sort of shrunk. We still care about religion, but not as much in terms of how we live our everyday life and make our everyday decisions. That left this vast swath of decision-making back to us. And we had to fill it in with something that would better be right. We got very, very nervous because if anything went wrong, it was on us.
The reason we are so nervous is because you can’t say, something terrible happened, but God works in mysterious ways, or there’s a greater plan we don’t understand, or even, fate is fickle. If you could realize that it’s not all in your control, you can relax a little because if something goes horribly wrong, God forbid, it’s not all on you and people understand, and there’s some sympathy and there’s some support.
But when it is all on you, and we are in this very judgmental era when we think anything that goes wrong is your fault as a parent, you have to feel like you must control everything, because if anything goes wrong, it’s because you weren’t paying enough attention, you didn’t read the latest study, you didn’t read the latest magazine. There’s a million books published every year on parenting.
In our society, every individual is supposedly able to create a perfect zero-danger society, zero-danger for their own kids. And that’s a big mandate that used to be somebody else’s mandate, and now it’s on our shoulders.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that you document extensively in this film is that there’s a huge actual cost when this play, when this freedom to just figure stuff out, is taken away from children.
I’ll talk a little bit here, I had a very unusual childhood in this respect because on one hand, my mother will be watching this and she’ll comment, but basically a very over-protective mom, very caring. On the other hand, I had other parts of my life where I had an amount of freedom that most adults weren’t aware of.
So I got to see both sides, and I was also very rebellious. But I’m incredibly grateful for those opportunities, even though some of them, when I look back, I kind of open my eyes pretty wide thinking, oh my goodness, we did that.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes. I have to say first of all, it’s so cool that you were rebellious, because rebellious people can grow up and have ties and even a little pocket protector.
What’s interesting is when I ask people about what they loved doing as a kid and they reminisce, and then I ask, was your mom there? Nobody says yes. That’s because we used to have this thing called our lives, right? It wasn’t our lives that were under constant supervision or teachable moments with our parents all the time. We would hop on our bikes.
Let me ask you one other question about your childhood, and then I’ll give you my little theory about this. Do you remember a time when something went wrong?
Mr. Jekielek: I remember a lot of things going wrong and having to deal with it. You might be talking about learning problem solving skills?
Mrs. Skenazy: That’s exactly it, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: There was a lot of learning of problem solving on the fly that’s for sure. But as I said, I was kind of kid who needed to touch the hot pot before I understood that it was really something I shouldn’t do.
Mrs. Skenazy: Everybody does, that’s why it’s “once burned, twice shy.” Everybody knows. It’s a saying that’s been around for a long time. I talk to people who study play. One of the things they talk about is that we think kids are playing when there’s the plastic fruit and there’s the little toy stove, which will never get hot.
What about all the other things that you associate with your childhood? There’s probably the smell of the forest, the feel of the weird sticky stuff on the tree and the leaves and pulling apart a flower and getting stung by a bee.
Life is so rich, and we keep editing it down because: don’t touch that, it’s dangerous. I’ll be with you. Here, touch this, honey. I’ve touched it first, it’s fine. This is a tree; tree starts with T. There’s something very different about exploring the world on your own and letting curiosity blossom and teachable moments when somebody is showing you everything and helping you and turning it into a lesson.
We stopped trusting kids’ curiosity and what they’ll do when they are maybe given a little too much freedom and maybe get into a couple of scrapes. We think, I have to be there, what if something bad happens? That’s what phones are for. What if there’s an emergency?
And suddenly everything becomes an emergency. We’re always there. It’s a way of taking away a really valuable part of childhood, which is learning how to deal. Being interested, following your instincts, finding out that doesn’t work and then fixing it.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, two vantage points. One thought I have is I also lived both in very, very rural areas—in Canada, we would call it first nations—and then in the deep city. We’re here, and there’s a big difference between city kids and country kids.
A lot of country kids seem, at least in my experience, to have a lot more responsibilities put on them and are able to deal with a lot more situations. There’s kids in the 4-H club that are raising their own animals.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes, 4-H is amazing
Mr. Jekielek: And you just wouldn’t see something like that typically in the city. There’s of course exceptions to this. Is there a city-country divide here?
Mrs. Skenazy: There probably is. First of all, I think 4-H is so cool. I also like the boy scouts. My kids were Boy Scouts here in New York City. Weirdly enough, I just have to tell you, they kept their equipment across from the church across from the Waldorf Astoria. They would take the subway down to the Staten Island ferry, they would take the ferry, and then they would take a cab, and they’d be in the wilderness. So there’s always a way to find wilderness anywhere.
In terms of country parents being immune from our culture of safety-ism, I have to say I don’t think so. I think that they have these pockets of things which are like 4-H just like we have Boy Scouts here.
One of the superintendents who had his district do the Let Grow project, which I’ll talk about more later, it’s where kids get the homework assignment to go home and do something on their own without their parents. It’s literally a homework assignment because that’s the only way we find that parents are willing to let go of their kids and let them do something new.
The superintendent called me up and said: I have to do this project. He says he was in Moscow. I was like Moscow? He’s like, no Moscow, Kansas, population 299. H was worried—he’d been the superintendent forever and ever—that he was starting to see kids driven to the school from houses he could see from the school.
That’s really interesting to me because that suggests—I never get mad at helicopter parents because I feel like if we’re all doing the same thing, must drive child two blocks to school or must stand by child at bus stop in safe suburb, there’s something that has changed in the culture that is making parents feel that this is their duty and this is the only thing that’s safe enough. Population 299, and the parents were driving the kids to school.
Mr. Jekielek: Talking again about two and a half plus years of doing American Thought Leaders, if there’s one thing that’s been impressed on me greatly throughout, it’s how powerful social pressure or—
Mrs. Skenazy: Norms.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. How powerful it is across all sorts of realities that people experience. I completely understand what you’re saying, because parents are wondering: if I’m not careful, well, everyone judge me.
Mrs. Skenazy: Right, right. It’s the fear of judgment. The fear of judgmen—and Judgment with a big J—is really interesting to me.
The other day I was out doing a podcast, and it was a husband and wife who are homeschoolers. They want to give their kids more freedom, and they believe in the whole free range, let grow ethos. I can’t remember if the husband or the wife said, “But if I let my kid walk to the store and something happens, something bad happens, I could never forgive myself.”
What’s interesting to me about that is two things. Once again, it’s going straight to the worst case scenario, the child dies. And it almost skips over the child dying to the guilt, and seeing it only through the lens of something terrible having happened and never being able to get over my own self-loathing.
It’s really a strange construct that people are going through when they’re thinking. Even the father who was afraid for the children when he’d put the piece of wood in the stove—afraid if it was arsenic, that he could never forgive himself.
There’s something very deep, not even about the judgment of other parents, but your own self, never being able to live with yourself anymore. Why are we always going there? I actually don’t know. If you know, tell me. I was asking a bunch of psychiatrists the other day. I don’t know.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you’re saying this has changed. And all these things seem to have changed quite a bit because this isn’t what people used to be thinking about as much one or two generations ago.
Mrs. Skenazy: Right. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, quit her job to stay home with me and my sister, so I would say she was very almost, I would say, worried. I think I’m part helicopter too. I’m never saying that I’m not. You can tell I’m a nervous person.
But nonetheless, she let me walk to school alone at age five, because that was the social norm. And the guy who was the crossing guard was a 10-year-old, because that was the norm. And today I was just talking to some people.
We’ve tried to change the laws in a lot of different states, and we’ve had success in three states so far. We were talking to some lawmakers, some policymakers, in Virginia. The law there says they don’t specify exactly when you are allowed or not allowed to let your kid outside, which I’m glad about.
But it said maybe some ten-year-olds are extremely mature and could be allowed to stay home alone for a little bit, and there are some 15-year-olds who couldn’t. I think there are some five-year-olds who are ready to stay home alone for 20 minutes.
And to already put it at twice that age and to even undermine it by saying maybe if you’re super mature, if you’re the best person on earth, maybe you could stay home alone and watch a video for 20 minutes while mom goes and gets the rotisserie chicken. That’s already just this new norm.
The thinking was that that kids could handle some things, and now the assumption is that kids can’t handle anything, even being alone in their own home at age eight, nine or 10.
In Virginia, the actual law in some of the counties or the actual policy is that no child under age nine is allowed to be home even in their own yard alone. Like you can’t be alone in the yard at age nine. That’s a country that’s gone crazy with safety-ism.
Mr. Jekielek: This is actually a really interesting piece of this whole puzzle, that it’s not just one state or a few. There’s laws in many states that actually in a way force parents for legitimate fear of having social services come and take your kid if you do something, if you’re one of these rare parents that actually wants to give a little more agency.
Mrs. Skenazy: Rare, right. Or if you’re a parent who doesn’t have a ton of money, and you’re working two jobs, and you can’t afford a babysitter, and you know that your 8-year-old is going to be fine being alone from 15:30 to 17:30 when you get off your second shift. That shouldn’t be a crime either.
It should be up to the parent to decide when their kid is ready. And so what we like is a law that says you are neglectful if you are putting your child in obvious, likely, and serious danger. And if you’re not—yes, somebody could break into your house if your kid is eight, but if your kid’s outside with you, a drunk driver could hit them.
You can’t go by the least likely most horrible thing that could possibly happen, having that be what determines whether you’ve been safe or not, whether you’ve put the child in a safe circumstance.
We passed laws in Utah, Texas, and Oklahoma that are called Reasonable Childhood Independence laws that basically say that it’s up to the parent to decide when their kid is ready for some independence. Unless they’re putting them in actual danger, it’s up to them.
The other laws in 47 states, it’s not like all the laws are horrible, but they are open-ended. Parents are left not knowing. A lot of laws say, you must give your child proper supervision until they are ready. Well, what are we saying here? I think it’s proper supervision to let my 7-year-old stay home with her 8-year-old sister, but if you don’t, then I’m sunk.
We’re trying to narrow the neglect laws so that they are more clear, and also leave most of the decision in the parent’s hands, unless they are obviously doing a bad job, a terrible job.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, kids need to separate at some point, right? I guess the big question is when is that? For kids now that point is—I don’t know if it’s college, it might be. That’s where suddenly you’re off.
Mrs. Skenazy: I’m not even sure you’re off then, but yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Potentially it’s a very unusual, unexpected, crazy life. What does that create? You were talking in the film about this mental health crisis among the kids. I don’t know if that’s partially because of the measurement [of the issue in kid’s minds]. I’m sure part of it is real in a situation where kids just aren’t used to having to deal with a lot of serious issues. But it’s all taken care of for them.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes. You’ve basically summed up everything that I am thinking, which is that when you don’t have a chance to prove yourself to your parents and to yourself, that you are capable of taking care of some minor things along the way.
The definition of anxiety is thinking that there’ll be something that you can’t handle that’s scary and horrible and that you won’t be able to deal. So you’re afraid that something is going to happen, and you’re afraid that you will be unable to deal with it.
We have a society that is sort of dedicated itself to making sure that children won’t have to deal with anything scary or bad, or if something comes up, there’s already somebody there to help them through it. And so what they’re not getting is the opportunity to face little problems along the way, and get used to them and realize that wasn’t so bad.
If you don’t realize anything isn’t so bad, it’s still so bad. “That wasn’t so bad” means you thought it was going to be so bad and yet now you have the proof that it wasn’t. And once again, I have to go back to my favorite whipping boy, which is Parents Magazine. They had an article on playdates.
Let’s just talk about playdates for a second. Did you ever go on a playdate?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I don’t know if that was the term, but, there would be like a slumber party, that would be definitely something parents would organize.
Mrs. Skenazy: That’s a party.
Mr. Jekielek: Or a birthday party. So those aren’t playdates.
Mrs. Skenazy: No, a playdate is when two kids get together and play and often there’s two adults watching them, and here’s why. Parents Magazine, which I realize is an obsession of mine, had an article on play dates, and it was the Playdate Playbook.
One question that a reader had asked was: my kid is ready to stay home alone, and sometimes she does. She’s that age, but now she has a playdate over, can I still leave and run an errand? And Parents Magazines said, whoa, absolutely not. Because first of all, your child could get hurt, physically hurt, and they gave an example of some kid who once got burned by microwave macaroni.
And then the second example was what if there’s a spat? You want to be able to jump in before anyone’s feelings get to hurt. What’s interesting to me about that is when we’re talking about child depression and anxiety, you’re creating an extremely anxious child with the advice from Parents Magazine.
If you’re telling a kid, no, you can’t even handle an argument with your friend, a spat in the midst of playing Barbies or dress up, what you’re telling them is that they have absolutely no inner strength whatsoever. An argument is so damaging, being upset or uncomfortable for a few minutes with your friend on a play date is so bad, that you must avoid it at all costs.
It’s driving the parent crazy because now they have to be listening. Are they having a spat? They seem to be kind of arguing or maybe they’re just excited, I can’t tell. And the other kid is having another playdate and what if I missed him having a spat? You’re driving the parent crazy by telling them this is the level of attention they must be paying to all their child’s interactions.
And then you’re taking away the opportunity for a kid to get used to one of the many things that they’re going to have in their life, which is an argument with a friend. You’re telling them that they’re fragile because they can’t handle it, and you’re keeping them fragile because they haven’t handled it, you’ve been there instead.
One of the things that Peter Gray, the venerated Peter Gray, says is that children are built to encounter the world and that includes all the good stuff and a good dollop of the bad stuff too.
And if you only have the parties and the sleepovers and the Chucky Cheese, and you never have the arguments, the betrayals, a little bit of teasing or frustration or disappointment, you don’t have the warp and the weft. You only have one way of the threads going, and that’s not a strong net.
Psychologically you’ve been deprived of developing the entire structure that’s going to hold you up for the rest of your life, which is “I can deal with that,” “That reminds me of that time,” or “That was horrible, but I lived.” To try to make kids’ lives absolutely frustration, sadness, and risk free is to try to keep the kid on the umbilical cord embryonic, and then send them off while they’re still like this and say, good luck kid.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you’re making me think of in the Buddhist tradition, suffering is considered positive, right? Of course that might be taken further than a lot of people would want, even you.
Mrs. Skenazy: Yes, I sure hate it. It’s not like I like suffering, I hate seeing my kids frustrated or when they don’t look up from their phones when they’re crossing the street, I go insane. But I think, one of the unspoken reasons that this culture is so obsessed with safety and child danger is that we spend so much time with our kids.
We see all the stupid things they do. Your mom wasn’t in the forest with you, which allowed you to be in the forest and take some risks and make some friends and have some adventures and maybe a couple scars and be the host of a TV show. As opposed to now, if she’d been watching you. Jan, come down from there. Jan, that’s not, don’t touch that. Jan, don’t eat that. Go say you’re sorry.
If there’s an adult always intervening, it’s an adult who’s doing the learning. There’s an expression in teaching: whoever is doing the activity is doing the learning. And if the parent is the one making peace and solving the problems, you’re this lump.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and the question that immediately comes to my mind, looking at how our society seems to be evolving is, does this somehow create more compliant people?
Mrs. Skenazy: More compliant? I think it creates people who—remember that Parents Magazine article, basically the child was not to be uncomfortable. They’re going to experience the discomfort of friction with a friend, and your job as a parent was to make that go away.
If discomfort is illegal or so awful that kids don’t feel they should have to deal with it, what you’re creating is a society that is hypersensitive and quick to look for somebody to come in and do what mom used to do.
When I was unhappy, mom would be here. Now where’s the HR department? Where’s the dean? So I think that’s what’s happening. I’m not positive, but I feel like when you’ve taught children that discomfort is the same as danger, they exaggerate. They don’t mean to, but they exaggerate whatever is making them unhappy is something that somebody else should be quickly fixing.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. You’ve had some legal wins; you were describing legislation that you managed to get passed. That’s incredible.
Mrs. Skenazy: In three states, yes. It is incredible; it’s really hard to pass a law. We got so close in Colorado. We passed our law, passed unanimously in the House, and it was about to go to the Senate, and then came COVID-19. And in South Carolina, it had passed the Senate.
I have to say that this is a bipartisan law, like in Nevada where it passed one House and not the other, same as Colorado, we had a Democrat, a black gay Democrat mom of one, and a white straight Republican grandma of 20 co-sponsoring the law.
As one of them said: if you see both of us sponsoring a law, it’s either really good or really bad, because it’s so strange. We had the same thing, we actually had a black and a white, a Democrat and Republican in Colorado too, because this is a parenting issue, this is a civil rights issue. Why would we want laws that keep us from trusting our kids to grow? So I think we’re going to have a lot more success this year trying another five states.
Mr. Jekielek: In addition to this kind of legal work, we see this in the film, “Chasing Childhood,” you go into communities that are interested in parents that are thinking: I’ve got a little too far. Let’s get Lenore over here and help us figure out how to be more normal. How does that work? And do you have some examples of how that has worked?
Mrs. Skenazy: Right. For 10 years, I went around as the Free Range Mom giving my talks and people would nod along and nothing would change. And so I formed Let Grow with me Peter Gray, Dan Shackman, who used to be the chairman of the board of FIRE, which fights for free speech on campus, and Jonathan Haidt who co-wrote the “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which is sitting right behind me there.
Together we started Let Grow, and our goal was to change behavior because this whole conversation is not going to change things, even though I’m here, because I want to change things.
What changes things is when a parent lets their kid go, whether they’re gripping the seat or relaxed. When you let your kid go and do something on their own, and the kid comes back and they brought the juice for dinner, or they climbed a tree, or they bring home a squirrel, whatever it is, you’re so happy that you don’t remember why you didn’t let it happen before.
It really feels like amnesia. It’s like, why did I never let you play outside before? But now you’re having so much fun; you’re finding all these bugs. The Let Grow project is this free thing that we want schools to try. All the materials are at letgrow.org. You press a button under school projects. You press it, and it spits out the pages.
It is this homework assignment. A teacher just has to give it to the class; a principal gives it to the teachers; a superintendent gives it to all the schools. The kids go home and they say, I have to do something new on my own, and all the other kids are doing it. Then the parent will go along. The teacher said to do it; you’re not the only one. If something goes wrong, you’re not to blame. Get the blame thing going.
It’s re-normalizing the idea of letting go, because that’s what’s changed. Parents Magazine has said, be there for every single second of the play date, listening in on every syllable. We’re saying no. The school is saying let them go.
Schools are doing the project because they’ve seen the kids getting really, really anxious and sometimes very passive because they don’t want to do anything wrong, and they’re awaiting orders. This is not good in the classroom. You want kids who are curious and alive and excited, and what we’ve heard—there’s a teacher who did the Let Grow project in a Title I school. Title I is high poverty school.
He said a couple of great things. He was a third grade teacher there. On days when kids were coming to tell him what they’d done for the Let Grow project, they ran up the stairs, because they were so excited: Mr. Carlson, I learned how to ride a bike, or I learned how to make tortillas, or I taught my sister, how to bake muffins or I climbed a tree! They’re so proud.
And also the kids who are not necessarily succeeding at school, kids who were bored, kids who weren’t doing well academically [got into it]. There was one kid who started making an amphibious vehicle. He wanted to take a little Tikes wagon and make it float. He’d come in and everybody was excited, did you do it? Is it floating? No, it sunk again. Oh, well, what are you going to try? Well, this time we’re trying marshmallows, whatever it was.
So it changed the dynamics in the room too, because it wasn’t just school anymore. The whole kid, the kid who’s creative or brave or wacky, has something to bring to school that is successful and is really who he is. He’s not just the bad student, he’s more than that.
In this particular school, where a lot of the parents didn’t speak English, the parents started texting photos of their kids making things or learning how to paint the door, helping with a project at home. It really just blows the roof off the school. Unsuccessful kids become successful and parents start realizing: that’s my kid!
The Let Grow project: there’s no downside, it doesn’t take much class time, and it’s free. Then Peter Gray, the guy who’s studied play all his life said after school, even if a kid wants to go play outside like you did, most of the time they can’t because either they’re in an afterschool program or their parents don’t think it’s safe or they end up on their electronics.
How can we get kids playing if we think that playing is so important? If that’s how they learn how to get along. Let’s have free play before or after the school day and have an adult there to watch, but they don’t solve the arguments, they don’t organize the games.
We started doing this at schools, not we, schools do it. Once again, you download all the instructions; they’re pretty easy. Once again, a Title I school, this was down in South Carolina. And there was a kid who was in the principal’s office three times in one week, which is a kid who’s having trouble at school.
So Kevin, who was running the play club, invited him to come to play club. Then he started second guessing himself: maybe I shouldn’t have, what if he ruins it for everybody? He’s in a bad place.
But the kid came to play club and sure enough, at first, everyone was flinching when they saw him, because he’s sort of the bad kid, but one kid started to play with him.
Some other kids started to play with him, and by the time play club was over and he’s going back into school, he was grinning. This kid was grinning. The other teacher with Kevin who was watching was crying because she’d never seen him smile.
That was interesting, and I don’t know how long the rest of that year was, but Kevin said that for the rest of that school year, the kid was not at the principal’s office. There’s something that’s so important about play. It’s really formative, but it’s also possible that some of this anxiety and this depression that we’re hearing about in kids is because they’re not playing.
It’s sort of like, you’re at the zoo. You have your food and you have your toys, but you don’t have a chance to really be fully what you were meant to be, what you are meant to be by nature.
One last example from a play club. Kids had made a giant pile of leaves; everybody’s taking turns jumping in it. It’s really fun, everybody’s having fun, until one kid goes and sits in the middle. Like total jerk, right? I’m not moving. Get out of the way. No. Come on, you’re in the way, we want to play. No. And kid’s just there. And so the kids finally—I don’t know if they talk with each other or how they figured it out—but they started jumping around him, and the kid got bored and he left.
That’s why we recommend play club, because what happened is the kid did not get the attention he wanted, and the children problem solved. They figured out what’s the problem. The kid wants attention. He’s in our way. What if we ignore him and jump around him? And it worked.
The opposite would have been if the teacher had gone and said: now Fred, you have to move. So Fred’s getting all the attention, and the kids are having an adult solve their problem again.
If you want to raise a society where kids become adults who solve their own problems and don’t wait for the authorities and don’t call HR and learn how to get along and think of brilliant new ideas that might be a solution to a problem that people didn’t have, you need to have practice. And play is the ultimate practice for being a functioning adult.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s amazing. We grapple with so many social societal issues here on the show, I wonder if this sort of thing isn’t actually perhaps even more important than lots of the issues.
Mrs. Skenazy: We think of kids as playing they want to be like grownups, but what are they doing? They’re organizing a game, it’s boring, they want to change the rules: let’s vote. Okay, let’s change who’s going to be first base or let’s play backwards.
It’s possible that democracy is a reflection of children’s successfully playing. If you don’t have children playing, and if you have somebody telling them where to be all the time, you’re not preparing them for democracy; you’re preparing them for something else.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Lenore Skenazy, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mrs. Skenazy: This was great Jan. I was ready to go for another two hours, but we can talk afterwards.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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